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Comparison: Melvin Gordon vs. Branden Oliver

Melvin Gordon has now been the starting running back for the San Diego Chargers for four games. Let's compare his performance this year to that of Branden Oliver last year.

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Let's, as is normal in all of my posts about Melvin Gordon these days, start with a disclaimer. I think Melvin Gordon is a fine running back. I've been just as excited about his performance as all of the other San Diego Chargers fans. There definitely appears to be something special about him.

That being said, I went digging through the stats and found something a bit disconcerting.

Let's go back to 2014...

The San Diego Chargers offensive line was in similar dire straits to its current situation, and the running backs were feeling the results of it.

By Week 3, Branden Oliver (an undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Buffalo) was getting some mop-up carries behind Donald Brown, with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead watching from the sidelines in street clothes.

In Week 4, Brown still started the game, but Oliver got nearly as many touches.

By Week 5, Oliver was the starter. Here is what he did, combined, in his first four games as the starting RB for the Chargers:

73 carries, 318 rush yds (4.36 Y/A), 2 rush TDs
17 catches (19 targets), 129 rec yds (7.59 Y/R), 1 rec TD

Average: 18 carries, 80 rush yds, 4 catches, 32 receiving yds, and nearly a touchdown per game

That is the definition of solid, and it's the reason why Oliver was the talk of the league for those few weeks.

I will freely admit that, at that time, I was not a "BO Believer". I was a staunch opponent of those that wanted to anoint Oliver as the team's new starting RB and get rid of Ryan Mathews. I thought Oliver was too small and not fast enough to make it as a regular starter, and in his rookie season.... I was mostly right.

Even that fourth game that's included above was not a great one. His stats look fantastic over this time period because of huge games he had against the lowly Jets and Raiders, and then it just got worse and worse.

Here are how his stats looked for his last three games as a starter before being benched (he essentially became the starter again in the last three weeks of the season, but right now we're focusing on the six-game span in the middle of the season).

39 carries, 91 rush yds (2.3 Y/A)
9 catches (13 targets), 37 rec yds (4.11 Y/R)

Average: 13 carries, 30 rush yds, 3 catches, 12 rec yds

That's it. Worse in every way. No touchdowns. It's no wonder the team went back to Donald Brown (and Ryan Mathews) as soon as they could.

After getting a few games "off" (on the bench, for the most part), Oliver got another three game stretch as the team's main RB. This time it was against the tough run defenses of the Broncos, 49ers, and Chiefs. How'd he do?

39 carries, 150 rush yds (3.85 Y/A), 1 rush TD
9 catches (11 targets), 76 rec yds (8.44 Y/R)

Average: 13 carries, 50 rush yds, 3 catches, 25 rec yds

That may not be a starter's stat line, but that is solid. That's the type of game that most teams hope to get from their #2 RB on a weekly basis.

It's worth noting that, while Oliver had a little bit more time to prepare for his first few rounds against NFL defenses, he was an undrafted free agent. He had to earn his spot on the roster and then earn his way up the depth chart.

What about Melvin Gordon?

Well, there's less to compare here, but we're not going to let a small sample size stop us. Here's what he's done in four games as a starter:

56 carries, 228 rush yds (4.07 Y/A)
6 catches (7 targets), 34 rec yds (5.67 Y/R)

Average: 14 carries, 57 rush yds, 2 catches, 8 rec yds

As far as yards per attempt goes, Gordon is in the right neighborhood. He'd probably be a little higher if he had faced some of the poor defenses that Oliver had faced last year, but he's not that much further ahead.

As a receiver, Gordon is putting up nowhere near Oliver's stats, but a big part of that is probably that Danny Woodhead is back and stealing those opportunities for himself.

What have we learned?

I don't want to put too fine a point on this, and I know everyone loves Branden Oliver (including me, after seeing how good he looked in the preseason), but Melvin Gordon is probably the more talented runner between the two backs.

So, why aren't his numbers any better?

Well, you could blame the offensive line, but I could pretty easily argue that the offensive line has either gotten better or stayed equally terrible over the last year.

The easier argument, and the one that makes sense, and the one that I've been making since before the 2015 NFL Draft is this: By and large, a running back's numbers are a result of his offensive line.

Sure, you can sway them a little bit in one direction or another when you compare someone like Adrian Peterson to a player like....I don't know, Isaiah Crowell. However, both players are going to at least put up similar numbers when put behind the same offensive line in the same offensive system.

(It's worth noting here that this is not a blanket statement. Trent Richardson or an old man in a wheelchair is not going to put up similar numbers to Peterson. We're talking specifically about NFL-level "average to good" running backs.)

That is the reason, along with the fact that running backs don't usually last very long in the NFL, that you should not draft a running back in the first round unless he is an otherworldly talent that hasn't been seen in the league for a decade (hello, Leonard Fournette). You certainly shouldn't trade away draft picks to move up in the first round to get one.

At the end of the day, the Chargers spent a king's ransom to land Melvin Gordon, when they likely could've gotten the same production for a lot cheaper somewhere else or some other way. They only needed to look at their own roster, where two undrafted free agents (Oliver and Woodhead) regular outperformed two first-round draft picks (Mathews and Brown), to realize it.